Environment must be considered in moves to end period poverty

Disposable products, like tampons, contain up to 90% crude oil plastic [m.p.3. / Flickr]

Scotland passed a law to make menstrual products free and end period poverty on Tuesday (24 November), but more needs to be done to discuss the environmental and health impacts of disposable products, according to environmental campaigners.

On average, women use around 11-12,000 disposable menstrual products in their lifetime, costing between €1,500 and €7,500 depending on the EU country.

These products can contain up to 90% crude oil as well as traces of pesticides and endocrine disruptors, which affect hormones.

They generate around 590,000 tonnes of waste each year in the EU and are among the top five single-use plastic polluting oceans, with 340,000 daily flushed in Scotland, according to Zero Waste Scotland.

“There’s a huge environmental impact of the waste. A lot of them contain plastics, which are notoriously difficult to degrade and breakdown,” said Catherine Bozec, Consumer Campaigns manager at Zero Waste Scotland.

More education is needed on the environmental and health impacts of disposable products,  said Tatiana Zorina, Period Poverty Project Officer at Dundee and Angus College, who is originally from Russia where she said periods were never talked about.

“Even today, I was speaking to a student and said to her, ‘Did you know that all of these pads contain up to 90% plastic, plus pesticides, plus chemicals and bleach?’” she said, adding as soon as the student realised, she wanted to stop using them immediately.

“That’s a prime example of the awareness and education that is really needed around all of the menstrual products and the impact they have on the environment, by using plastic, by flushing plastic, but also for ourselves and the effect on our own bodies,” said Zorina.

Since she started teaching about periods in September, 24% of students involved have asked to try a menstrual cup, a reusable product made of silicon.

“It will take us years to make sure that everyone’s switching, everyone’s using reusables, but we will come to it. If you have a reusable in your drawer, you will never be in poverty or that position where you don’t have anything on you,” she said.

The Scottish law will enable funding for colleges like Zorina’s to give out free reusable products, like menstrual cups and period pants, alongside disposable products.

Disposable products are around 90% plastic and contain chemically-infused materials, but because they are counted as medical devices, they are not legally required to disclose ingredients.

In 2018, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety called for restrictions under the REACH directive after some pesticides banned in the EU were found in products and urged manufacturers to improve the quality of raw materials.

Traces of potentially highly-toxic dioxin, easily absorbed into the bloodstream, endocrine-disruptors, carcinogenics, fragrances, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon and pesticides were also found in products.

Levels of period education vary across with EU, with women and girls in Orthodox religions still unable to attend churches during their period.

Europe should now follow the example of Scotland by making laws to end period poverty and improve education, according to Zorina.

In 2018, Zero Waste Europe criticised the Commission’s proposal for a directive on the reduction of single-use plastics, saying it failed to seize the opportunity to reduce plastic pollution while also lowering menstrual poverty and exposure to hazardous chemicals.

“Ensuring that reusable and toxic-free menstrual items are made available across the EU should be made a priority on this proposal for a directive,” said the NGO.

They suggested amendments to fight period poverty with reusable and safe products, ensuring the availability of these across Europe and reduce toxins in period products.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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